Mark’s gospel is the shortest retelling of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Mark starts by telling us, his readers that he is writing about the good news of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God – and his tale starts immediately with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
Reading through Mark’s gospel, there is a sense of urgency – in fact, the word for ‘immediately’ is used over and over.Mark doesn’t waste time talking about Jesus’ birth, or going into details of Jesus’ background or genealogy – he gets straight to the point of things, ie., Jesus ministry.
So, today we heard the first story within Mark’s gospel. That of Jesus’ baptism.
The idea of baptism wasn’t entirely new to the Jewish people. They had always had ritual cleansing to be completed prior to attending the temple, or special ceremonies or celebrations. However, these were self-administered, and did not involve others.
Full immersion was only used when gentiles were converting to Judaism and was not considered necessary for those born Jews. John’s baptism, therefore, was a new and radical idea.
We know that over the centuries, prophets had been sent by God to help the Jewish people see their lives and actions with fresh eyes – and calling on them to change their ways – and here is another prophet calling for people to change their lives. However, this time, this new prophet is not only calling for people to change their ways, but to first allow themselves to be immersed in the river water to show they had got the message and intended to live their lives differently from then on.
John’s appearance and diet were unusual – dressed in camel’s hair and with a leather belt, and eating locusts and wild honey. As I mentioned before, Mark doesn’t waste time telling us anything he thinks is unnecessary – so the fact that he bothers to tell us about John’s dress and diet tells us that these things are important to Mark. 2 Kings 1: 8 says Elijah wore a garment of hair with a leather belt around his waist. Elijah also spent some time in the wilderness, eating whatever was provided for him. It seems that the writer of Mark wanted to align the prophet, John the Baptiser, with Elijah – maybe to give him extra credence – in case the readers needed extra conviction of that John’s message was valid.
Although the writer of Mark is at pains to compare John with Elijah – he then goes on to confirm, through John’s own words that he is not the longed-for Messiah – in fact that there is one coming after him who is so important that he, John is unworthy to even tie his shoelaces. Tying shoelaces was normally done by slaves, so by using this example, John is emphasising his own unworthiness, and the status of the one to come.
In a second comparison, John then tells everyone that he baptised with water, and that the one coming after him would baptise with the Holy Spirit – although he appeared to give no explanation of what that meant.
John’s baptism was of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
We don’t know how the word got around that there was a man preaching out in the desert – there weren’t a lot of mobile phones, or tv news broadcasts in those days, so the message must have been spread by word of mouth – and it appears that the local grapevine was very efficient, as crowds of people ventured out into the desert to hear what this crazy character had to say. Not only did the crowds come to hear John speak, but his message obviously hit a nerve with many of them, as they then consented, in droves, to the humiliation of being dunked in the dirty river.
Then, Jesus enters the story. Compared with the description we have of John, we are told nothing about Jesus – no description, no dietary restrictions – nothing – just that he came among the crowd and also submitted to the immersion experience. The other gospels mention a conversation between Jesus and john, but in Mark’s gospel there is no mention of a discussion. Jesus just quietly enters the story as one among the crowd.
However, this baptism was obviously different from the others – as he came up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven rent open!
Is that something you can imagine?
And the spirit descending like a dove!
Close your eyes now, and think about the sky being torn apart – what would that look like?
It’s not a gentle vision – it’s a violent act – and probably very noisy –
and then a dove comes down – there’s no violence in that action – in fact, it is a gentle, quiet act –
in stark contrast with the tearing apart of the sky
And then a voice comes from heaven –
we are not told if it is a loud voice, with deafening tones,
or a quiet voice,
or whether it was little more than a whisper –
it is a voice from heaven –
and however loud it was, it carried a tone of authority –
‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’
Wow!!! What an affirmation!!!
This was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – and if he, as a human being had any doubts as to his destiny – or whether he was really called by God to proclaim a new message – then surely this vision and affirmation were what he needed to encourage him on his way.
We know that after his baptism, Jesus was tested in the wilderness, and prepared further for his ministry, but it was the baptism of John that confirmed for him that he was God’s son.
I’m thinking about the spirit descending – like a dove.
This is the same spirit we heard about in our Genesis reading – the spirit that ‘hovered over the waters’ – hovering, waiting for the chance to work the miracles of creation. And, according to Genesis, the first miracle was the creation of Light.
I read this week that the word for ‘hovering’ in the original script means more than hovering – it’s a more active verb – like joyful dancing.
And the same spirit came down on Jesus – and entered into Him – or danced into him – waiting joyfully for more chances to work miracles – miracles we read about later in the gospel – but always creating joy and light.
And the same spirit enters into us when we accept Jesus’ salvation for us.
And at our baptisms – whether as children or as adults – the same spirit enters into us – waiting joyfully for more opportunities to work miracles – of bringing light – Jesus’ light – into those around us.
Actually, for me to be here speaking to you, is a miracle brought about by that same spirit – if left to my own devices, this is not what I would be doing!! I am not a natural public speaker, and my instinct is to take the back seat and allow others to lead. Until recently, even speaking up in small meetings was almost impossible for me. Leading anything was out of the question – until Jesus pushed me into it – I say Jesus pushed me – because I had resisted the gentle call I had heard for a little while – until someone asked me to lead a service in our little community on the West Tamar – when I say ‘asked’ – it felt more like being told to do it – I was really given little choice – as there was no-one else for that day – so I think Jesus pushed me into expressing my faith in a new way – and the Holy Spirit (who was probably waiting joyfully for me to respond) worked a miracle of within me.
Every time we hear God’s voice, whether loudly, like thunder, or quietly, like a gentle breeze, it is that same spirit that hovered, or joyfully danced, over the waters, that entered the prophets of the old testament, that entered Jesus at his baptism, like a dove.
That same spirit it here, living with us, giving us strength, urging us on to new places, joyfully dancing her way into our hearts, our lives, encouraging us to new ways of living, worshiping and growing.
God has placed us in this place, within the changing limitations of our current Covid-19-filled world, and it is up to us to allow that same spirit to live in us – in fact to thrive in us, individually, and as a community, so that Jesus’ light continues to shine for all the world to see!
Finally, in our baptism service, we as the congregation, make a promise to each other, and to the newly-baptised child/adult. I would like us to repeat that promise now, to each other, and to God, confirming that the Holy Spirit will live forever within our lives and community of faith, joyfully dancing among us, waiting for opportunities to show Jesus light to the world.
With God’s help,
we will live out our baptism
as a loving community in Christ:
nurturing one another in faith, upholding one another in prayer,
and encouraging one another in service,
until Christ comes.
Written by Jen Flanagan
Jen is a lay preacher in training at TUC. As well preaching, Jen often assists with leading the 10:30am service and is a member of the Thursday Community Fellowship ministry team.More from Jen Flanagan